A former New Bedford police sergeant and treasurer of the city’s police union was sentenced to three months in prison Monday for embezzling money from the union’s coffers.
Joshua Fernandes, 41, had pleaded guilty to stealing close to $48,000 from the union’s treasury. The federal investigation that led to the charges marked the end of his 17-year career in law enforcement.
Discrepancies in the union’s finances were first reported to outside investigators after Fernandes took a leave of absence in April 2019 to deal with a mental health crisis.
“I informed them that I wanted to take my own life and I traded my firearms to the department at that time and they placed me on leave,” Fernandes said in court on Monday.
A month into his leave, Fernandes was arrested on charges related to domestic violence that have since been dropped or continued without a finding. He was later charged with fraud and terminated by the police department.
In a letter delivered to the judge in court on Monday, Fernandes wrote that he regrets spending union money personal expenses like concert tickets, a trip to Florida and his family’s phone bills.
“I regret the actions that led to this charge but cannot help but feel like punishment should also come for my shortcomings in life generally,” Fernandes wrote. “For not being a faithful husband, for not being a better father, for not being a better son and brother and friend, for hurting the feelings of people in my life, and for losing the trust of the citizens of the city I love.”
U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf said he handed down a significantly shorter sentence than the year prosecutors requested because of the unique character of the officer involved.
Early in his career in 2006, Fernandes received the highest honor Massachusetts awards to police officers for his role responding to a mass shooting at a New Bedford strip club. Fernandes was shot in the eye and still managed to drive his injured partner to the hospital. He received the George L. Hanna Memorial Award for Bravery for his actions.
In court Monday, Fernandes was ordered to serve three months in prison and six months in home detention, during which Wolf said he will allow Fernandes to work while he pays off nearly $48,000 in restitution owed to the New Bedford Police Union.
“I hope no policeman or anyone else gets a mistaken impression that my colleagues or I would normally think that three months is a sufficient sentence for your crime,” Wolf said to Fernandes in court on Monday. “But you’re a unique person and you have qualities that are rarely seen in somebody that commited the crime that you committed.”
Wolf cited letters of support from Fernandes’ daughter and the current president of the New Bedford Police Union, who assumed leadership several months after Fernandes pleaded guilty to embezzlement.
As Fernandes prepares to head to prison on August 8, there are still questions looming within the police department about whether federal prosecutors got to the bottom of the union's corruption problems.
Last year, a police lieutenant with access to an unreleased audit of the union's finances alerted other union members that accountants identified more than $674,000 in questionable union spending. The amount Fernandes pleaded guilty to embezzling amounts to less than a tenth of that total.
“In my opinion this has been a complete cover up attempt by multiple parties working together against the union body to hide, from the body, the abuse and misuse of funds,” Lt. Candido Trinidad wrote in his summary of the audit, which The Public’s Radio obtained through a public records request after other publications cited it in their reporting.
Chris Cotter, the union’s president since December, did not respond to a request for comment about the audit, though he hinted at a potentially broader conspiracy in a letter of recommendation to Judge Wolf regarding Fernandes’ sentencing.
“I strongly believe that there is more to this but I will never know,” Cotter said in the letter. “Joshua is one who is accused and has taken responsibility.”
Still, Cotter has refused on several occasions to share the audit documenting union spending during the years Fernandes was treasurer. Public tax filings show the union began operating at a deficit shortly after Fernandes took over the role.
The union leaders who served alongside Fernandes during that span, Hank Turgeon and Jimmy Estrella, stepped down from their respective roles as president and vice president in December. Both remain on the New Bedford police force and neither responded to requests for comment.
A spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins declined to comment on whether federal investigators are probing further into the matter.
This story is a production of New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by The Public's Radio.